Bhutan portraits 2016

I’ve just gone through the rolls of film from my shoot in Bhutan in 2016. They’ve been sitting in a ‘to do’ list for over two years. I think, sometimes I really need distance from a shoot, plus I have a lot of other things on. This is no longer unusual for me to sit on images for so long. I have other images from other shoots that are sitting patiently for when I feel I’m ready to work with them.

One of the delights about this trip, was being able to get behind the scenes access. I can only thank Ewen Bell for assisting in this. I joined Ewen’s tour in Bhutan, which I thought was amazingly well organised. So much research and time he must have spent, and he has great relationships with the people he works with in Bhutan, so I think this was all a matter of trust that was bestowed upon us.

I can’t say I’m a brilliant portrait shooter. In fact, I was overcome with a lack of confidence at the start of the trip and it took me a week or so to get comfortable. Somehow, I just didn’t have the courage to approach people. This does happen to me from time to time.

I’m always left wondering why landscape shooters don’t enjoy portraiture. To me, people are much more dynamic but ultimately, a good portrait shot is like a good landscape shot : they both contain a good composition, good colour and tonal relationships and of course, soul.

Portraiture is harder work for me. I know my real forte is landscape work, but that doesn’t or shouldn’t mean that it’s all I should do. I get immense pleasure out of meeting people, the interaction making pictures of them, and it adds another dimension to my photographic life.

The biggest technical challenge for me was shooting in such low light. I’m a film photographer and the highest film speed I can travel with is 800 ISO. It’s simply not fast enough for many of the interior locations I was in. I pre-empted this with taking along a monopod, but still, shooting wide open at f2, and finding the camera telling me I have a shutter speed of 1/4 second isn’t ideal….. I was frustrated.

I also got some x-ray damage on some of the rolls of film, despite having a lead bag to travel home with the films. I don’t believe in the myth that X-ray operators turn up the x-ray if they can’t see inside the bag - it makes more sense to me that they will just stop the bag and have it searched, and that the x-ray machine would be set to a fix dosage. So I think that all that’s happened is that some of my films weren’t in the lead bag - maybe still in the film magazine of my Contax 645 camera. Anyway, it’s only about 2% of the films that were damaged, and even then, it was a slight oscillation throughout the film and hardly detectable at times.

But I do wonder about shooting digital for these kinds of interior shots. High ISO digital capture is so good now. However, I just don’t like the ‘look’ of digital. There’s a depth and intensity to the colours of film that I don’t see in digital work, but perhaps that’s all in my mind. Who knows?

If you’ve never given portraiture a chance, then you should. The hardest part is asking, and the second hardest part is staying with your subject and directing them if need be.

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Bhutan

I haven’t made portraits in a while ( about two years ). I’m just going through some images I made in Bhutan back then, and although I’m pleased with the images I’ve uncovered so far, nne of them come up to this little gem that I’ve just uncovered night.

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The thing is, I have absolutely no memory of taking this shot. Which goes very much against what I often tell people - that the good images often burn themselves into my mind. I simply cannot remember it, and so I think it must have been so quickly made. Perhaps a second or two encounter. Gone in an instant.

I really like this shot - the background colour compliments the red robe of the young monk, and of course, the way he is wearing part of his robe on his head and looking at me just works so well.

I haven’t gone through all the films I shot so far, but I can’t help but feel this might be the best shot I’ve made out of my Bhutan collection.

Old meets new

I was in Bhutan two years ago. I’ve only just gotten round to looking at the films from this trip.

As part of the trip, I was able to get access ‘behind the scenes’ to some of the quarters where the dancers were getting dressed.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, and I’m so surprised to note that one of the Bhutanese dancers is busy checking his mobile phone while he is preparing to dress for the festival. I simply didn’t spot it at the time I was making the photos. Part of getting on with the chaos that was around me at the time of the shoot.

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Your portfolio shapes who you are

I'm just on my way home from Bhutan, where I had a really great trip making some new portraits. Portraits? Yep - that's right. I don't just do landscape images, but when I get the chance, I love to photograph people.

It's been a while though and I've found my mind is bringing back earlier memories of my time in India and Nepal in 2009. I feel very reflective about it as I remember who I was at that time - how I felt about life and the ideals I held at that time. This recent trip to Bhutan has made me think about the implications of my photography with regards to how I live my life now and how I've changed over the years.

Portraits, amassed throughout the years. Image © Bruce Percy

Portraits, amassed throughout the years.
Image © Bruce Percy

Every interaction we have in our lives to some degree, becomes a part of us. We are always collating and storing away our experiences. They shape and form our opinions and ideals as we travel through our lives.

In essence, we are our memories. They shape who we are.

I think the same ideal holds true with the work we create. Building up a collection of work over many years is like being in the middle of an unfolding story, one that is being written and will not be completed until we put down our camera for the very last time.

I often rediscover my memories through my older work Images © Bruce Percy

I often rediscover my memories through my older work
Images © Bruce Percy

As I've looked back at my earlier work, I've seen how much I've grown as a photographer. This has been in tandem with me thinking about how much I've learned as a human being from all the interactions I've had with others through my photography.

For example in Nepal I spent three weeks getting to know many of the temple worshipers around the Kathmandu valley, while in Cambodia I met two girls who failed to sell me bracelets for many days until they became indifferent to my presence. It was only then that I was able to captured a photograph of them fishing at the side of a lake. In Japan I stood under a marquee tent and captured a Geisha as she was looking away from me and in Ethiopia I got to know many of the deacons of Lalibela through my guide Muchaw.

I'm sure these experiences have shaped my opinions and outlook over the years. How could they not?

I often think that photography is the act of submission: we give ourselves permission to go out there and enquire, but we also give ourselves the permission to accept what experiences come our way.

Now that I have ended my trip to Bhutan, I am excited to think that my experiences and memories from this trip will shape and help define the work I edit, and that this work over time, will become part of my portfolio but perhaps more importantly, it will become part of me. Because once a new work is born, it is as though it was always here, waiting to be acknowledged and accepted as part of who I am.